Over-expression of the c-erbB-2 (HER-2/neu) gene product p185 occurs in 30% of breast and ovarian cancers. The p185 protein might serve as a target for serotherapy in that antibodies against different epitopes on the extracellular domain of p185 can inhibit growth of tumor cells in the absence of cellular or humoral effector mechanisms. To define epitopes of functional relevance, 11 monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) were evaluated for their ability to bind to the extracellular domain of p185. Results of competition studies with 125I-labeled and non-labeled antibodies indicated that 10 of 11 epitopes were grouped in a linear array. Antibodies against 7 epitopes inhibited anchorage-independent growth and antibodies against 2 of these epitopes also inhibited anchorage-dependent growth of SKBr3 breast-cancer cells that over-expressed p185. Treatment with antibodies exerted cytotoxic rather than cytostatic effects. When antibodies were used in combination, additive or supra-additive inhibition of anchorage-independent and anchorage-dependent growth was observed between pairs of antibodies. Growth inhibition did not relate to the affinity of the antibody or its isotype. Two antibodies that inhibited both anchorage-dependent and anchorage-independent growth also blocked binding of the HER-2/neu ligand, whereas 5 antibodies that inhibited only anchorage-independent growth had no effect on ligand binding. Inhibition of cell growth did not correlate with internalization of p185 or down-regulation of p185 on the cell surface. Fab fragments of active antibodies could also inhibit anchorage-independent growth of SKBr3. Thus, murine MAbs and their fragments recognized both immunochemically distinct and functionally distinct epitopes on the p185 molecule. Whereas inhibition of anchorage-dependent growth correlated with the ability of antibodies to block ligand binding, inhibition of anchorage-independent growth did not correlate with effects on ligand binding, internalization, cell-surface expression or cross-linking of p185.